Razu Alauddin is a poet, essayist and translator. He specializes in Jorge Luis Borges and has translated into Bengali the great Argentine writer's stories and essays from the original Spanish.
Abdus Selim is a playwright, translator and essayist.
Universality of Charyapada, Dr Shahidullah and Octavio Paz
(Translated from Bangla by Abdus Selim)
In consideration of the amount of historically authentic information accumulated regarding the compositional timeframe, linguistic source and grammatical features of the Charyapada, discussion of its height of literary and artistic values is quite meager. What is more surprising, although there exists an abundance of physiological discussion on the Charyapada in academia, any discussion on the subject is rare in the works of mainstream poets, writers or essayists of the Bengali language. Whatever writings on the Charyapada we come across are mostly done by researchers. Despite the abundance of important information, data, observations, commentaries, footnotes etc. in their writings, they lack in discussions about the brilliance of the book in world literature and imagination, or about why the aesthetic importance of Charyapada is still superior to us. One glorious exception, perhaps, is Atindra Majumdar’s book, also named Charyapada, which contains elaborate discussion of the impact and influence of the Charyapada on the Bengali poets of successive generations. The book, however, does not portray any comparative discussion between the Charyapada and foreign literatures. Nobody before or after Atindra Majumdar has done that. Apart from its antiquity, it carries those timeless features in its ornamental, linguistic, poetic and philosophical tendencies that impress even the hearts of foreigners. Although in my writings I have mentioned Mexican poet Octavio Paz’s proclivity for this wonderful masterpiece of the Bengali language, I missed out on his observation and commentary on its tantric backdrop. It is because I wanted to write a separate essay on the subject. Why I have mentioned his interest is due to his desire to translate Bengali poetry many years ago, perhaps during his stint as Mexican ambassador to India. His desire is manifest in the preface to his book Versiones y Diversiones. The experience of poet Alokeranjan Dasgupta’s meeting with Paz also gives an inkling into that desire thus: “As I chanced to meet Paz for a few moments, he expressed his desire to move back to India by reciting bilingual (Spanish and Bengali) poems. He would make his image clearer to the audience.” (Alokeranjan Dasgupta, Rikhiya thekey Anek Durey, Alkananda Publishers, 2012, p.84). He could not do the translation. Nevertheless, he was not silent on Bengali poetry’s most ancient piece.
Before entering into Octavio Paz’s comments, observations and interpretations of the Charyapada, it is important to see from a historical perspective how the ancient Bengali masterpiece is different from its counterparts in the major European languages. It is because Paz will direct us, like Virgil, toward that big-picture evaluation while analyzing the Charyapada.
We all know that poetry is the oldest genre of any language. In most languages, however, poetry was basically fables or songs. The Hilderbrandslied in German and Chansons de geste or Chansons de Roland in French bear testimony to that. Lyric launched its journey at the hands of troubadours in the French language. On the other hand, the oldest piece of Spanish poetry, Mosarabib Songs or Harcha, stretches its origin two centuries prior to the French troubadours in 12th century. Of all the living European languages, only Spanish boasts the glory of giving birth to lyrical form of poetry.
On the other hand, the Bengali language is the mother of lyric in the whole Indian subcontinent and the Charyapada is its first poetic offspring. Given its antiquity, the Charyapada is precursor of the oldest of lyrics written in any living European languages. However, lyrics written in the otherwise neglected and marginalized Indian language at the time gave birth to “the late Vaishnavite Sanskrit and vernacular songs in one hand, and the Persian ghazals on the other.” (Buddhist Mystic Songs, Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, Bengali Academy, Revised and Enlarged Edition 1966).
Apart from these impactful roles, the key feature of the Charyapada is its multi-layered meanings, which is missing in the Spanish Harcha. Even shallow, let alone deep, poetic sensibilities are absent in the Harcha. In the words of Pedro Salinas, major Spanish language poet, they are “very simple little songs”. They lack in the ornamental abundance of metaphors and allegories of the Charyapada. The main beauty of the Harcha is its simplicity and lyricality. In contrast, Charyapada’s main beauty lies in suggestiveness and implication of its language as well as the complexity of expressing philosophy and tantric practices in terms of metaphors and allegories. Plus, its soul always reverberates with the beauty of poetry. It does not hold any match to any of the earliest lyrics written in a European language. Another big difference between the Charyapada and the ancient poetic pieces of European languages is, while the European ones are themed on battle, campaign or love, the Charyapada embodies physicality, instead of love, as the mode of tantric meditation. In Octavio Paz’s words, “Tantrism knows nothing of what we call love, and its eroticism is sacramental.’’ [El trantismo ignora lo que llamamos amor y su erotismo es sacramental.] (Octavio Paz, Conjunciones y disyunciones, Editorial Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico, Febrero 1986, P. 233.) Which means, when love and other themes were a universal feature of almost all languages, the Charyapada bypassed that beaten track to enter into the complex forest where body is a “torubor panchabi dal” (a tree with five branches). (Charya-1) Where two are blossomed in an embrace (Tiora chapi joini dey ankaboli, charya-4) and where kissing can satisfy the partners as if they are drinking the sap of a lotus. (to muho chumbi kamalarasa peebami, charya-4). In the charyas, body comes up time and again with sexual desire, but each time it is brilliant with a new and fresh meaning.
Bhonoi gundori amohekundure bira/nara nari majhe ubhilo chira (Gundari says, we are heroes in intercourse. The genital organ was raised between men and woman. --charya-4).
Deho noori bihoroi ekare (In the city of the body observing only one rule.-- charya-11).
Pancho tothagata kiyo kedual. Bahoho kao kahnil maajal. (Making the five Thathagats the oar. O Kanha, carry the body like a net of illusion. --charya 13).
Kanha gait u kam chandali. Dombi to agli nahi chhinali (Kanha sings, “you are as candali woman in passion. There is no more unchaste woman than you.”--charya 18).
Dombi-er songe jo joi rotto. Khonoho no charoi sohojo unmotto. (The Yogin who is attached to the company of the dom woman does not leave (her) for a moment, being mad with the Sahaja.--charya 19),
Botis joini tosu anga ullosiyou (Thirty two female ascetics delighted their bodies.--charya -27)
Sabaro bhuongo noiramoni dari pemmo rati pohaili. (Sabara is the paramour. No-soul is the public woman. The night was passed in love.--charya 28).
Mohasuhe bilosonti sabaro loiya suno mehely.. (Sabara sports with great pleasure taking the woman void.--charya 50).
There is no doubt that the idea of physical intercourse entered into the charyas from a tantric tradition. What is more, these pioneers of Bengali poetry put the physical intercourse (sensual gratification) beyond sanskara and thus set a unique example. That is, these poems entered into the comfort zone of physicality and sexuality. This is rare in any other ancient lyrics of the world to expose physical intercourse in such a vivid manner.
The Charyapada is timeless not only for its richness in content but also for ornamental beauty and linguistic smartness, in addition to its philosophical disposition of putting the reality and illusion within the same parenthesis. “Udak chand jim sach na michha” (As the moon in water is neither true nor false: Charya-29). By combining this contradictory belief of epistemological binary, the Charyapada has played a trailblazing role of the invisible layer of reality. I can see the Charyapada, like a star, exude a rare light of thought wrapped up in ornamental beauty. A proverbial line of the Charyapada is “Apona mangshey harini bairi” (The deer’s flesh is its enemy). Another line, if not proverbial as such, is very important given its ornamental significance, and that is: Joini jale roini pohai’. In the first quote, the image of a person’s beauty and wealth being his undoing is painted in a unique effortlessness. In the second verseline, we encounter such a metaphor whose poetic beauty cannot but leave us impressed. What it says in modern Bengali usage is like “Joginir jaley (kingba jonaki jaley) rajani pohay” (The night passes in the web of fireflies). This metaphor reminds us of another metaphor, which is “The web of men” in the poem “Norse”, much praised by poet Jorge Luis Borges. If we present Borges’ aesthetic interpretaion of this war-signifying metaphor, we shall get a clearer and more beautiful view of the metaphor ‘jonakir jal’ (The web of firefly). He says:
The word “web” is really wonderful here, for in the idea of a web we get the pattern of a medieval battle. We have the swords, the shields, the crossing of the weapons. Also, there is the nightmare touch of a web being made of living beings. “A web of men”: a web of men who are dying and killing each other. (Jorge Luis Borges, The Craft of Verse, Harvard University Press, 2000, p-38).
By imagining a web of dots of light of fireflies, the poet’s sense of beauty not only dispels the darkness of a night, but also ornamentalizes it.
The Charyapada is the only ancient poetry that shaped up out of tantric philosophy. It sought its mukti (liberation/freedom) in being philosophically oriented, pushing tantric rituals to the background. Nihilism, that rocked the intellectual sphere of the Western world in the 20th century, found its precursor in sunyatabad in the Indian subcontinent thanks to Nagarjuna and Matsyendranath, among others. It had its bearings on some poets of the Charyapada, especially Saraha and Kanha.
Both the two Kanha and Saraha are, in fact, Nihilists. As for the madyamika Philosophers, nothing is existing, neither bhava the existence “nor nirvana” annihilation”, neither bhava the being “nor abhava’ “the non-being.”
The verity is innate (sahaja), i.e. the “nothingness.” The Vedas, The Puranas, the traditions, the didactic treatises, in fact, in all the sciences are useless for teaching of truth. The teacher can only indicate it, but nothing can explain it, because it is beyond the pathway of words. (M. Shahidullah, The mystic songs of Kanha and Saraha the Doha Kosa, translated by Pranabesh Sinha Roy, published by the Asiatic Society, 2007, P 16-17).
Apart from Kanha and Sarah, another Charyapada poet called Krishnacharyapadanam made nihilism even wider and more profound. As he says, “Swapaney moi dekhilo tihubana suna/ghoriyo abanagabana bihuna (I saw in a dream that the three worlds were void and without the coming and going as they revolve.--36)”.
The Charyapada is rich in philosophical wealth as well as thought about language (bhabukota). The thought stemmed from the philosophy of the Buddha. Although language is considered to be a mode of expression, it sometimes stumbles on the edge of meaninglessness, ambiguity and complexity while expressing certain ideas. Shahidullah knew about the linguistic limits and limitations of the poets of Charyapada in terms of expressing tantric practices and lifestyles. He did not fail to let us know it in his research work: “nothing can explain it, because it is beyond the pathway of words.” These words of Shahidullah would remind us of Lord Buddha who, despite framing many codes of conduct for different aspects of life, was silent on some questions that he considered meaningless to answer. Perhaps, it would lead to confusion to try to answer them. So, silence was the suitable answer as it, at least, saved us from confusion. We knew from many Buddha tales that he was silent on some questions. Octavio Paz, in his bid to provide an acceptable interpretation of Buddha’s silence, says: “Buddha did not reply to it, because it is better to remain silent on some issues. Words are dialectical: if you make one affirmative, the other becomes negative. There comes a moment when you cannot call something affirmative or negative. To put it more clearly, when affirmative and negative, meaning and meaninglessness coexist, they neutralize each other. This might be the meaning of his silence.
“I think meaning and meaninglessness are linguistic traps, and silence dissolves this false dilemma. But, silence is what follows words. Or rather, it is what comes after knowledge.” (Elena Poniatowska, Octavio Paz: las palabras del arbol, plaza Janez 1998, P 109-110).
Octavio Paz succinctly expresses this silence as “knowledge of no knowledge.
Blaise Pascal was frightened of infinite emptiness and silence. His famous quote in this connection says, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”
It is not hard to understand that the source of this silence to Pascal is the limitlessness of the exterior world. The interior world of man is similarly limitless that makes linguistic expression even more complex, distant and puzzling. There is something about the wisdom deep down our interior world, which is beyond articulation. No other branch of knowledge can comprehend this limitation of language as much as poetry does, due to its hypersensitivity. Kanhapada, a poet of the Charyapada, had realized one thousand years ago that language cannot carry a special perception of wisdom very far. He says:
Shahidullah has translated this part of Charyapada thus: “How can he speak of that which is beyond the reach of the way of speech? The more it was said, the more it was subterfuge. The guru is dumb, the disciple is deaf.” No matter how simple, clear and casual this verse seems, it is actually very complex. To know why it is so, we have to navigate the domain of language in modern philosophy.
This realization of Kanhapada will remind us of the Austro-German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concern over language. He was concerned about language’s aversion to meaning, its tendency to remain safely silent sometimes.
In Wittgenstein’s book Tractatus logico-Philosophicus, published in his lifetime, he tackled some central problems regarding the world, thought and language. Through seven key proposals, he countered the problems. Now we shall discuss only the relevant proposal that can be linked up with Kanhapada’s charya. The proverbial quote of Wittgenstein was: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge 1974. p-89).
This proposal, though the last, is exclusively connected to all of his other philosophical proposals. No one in the West before Wittgenstein had considered language and expression as a key problem of philosophy as he did. This remains a central idea of his whole philosophical framework. If we look at proposal number 4 and its clauses in Tractus, we shall understand the centrality of that idea:
4. A thought is a proposition with a sense.
4.001 The totality of propositions is language.
In the next paragraph, he says, “It is not humanly possible to gather immediately from it what the Logic of Language is.” He further explains, “Language disguises thought. So much so, that the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purpose.”
The question, therefore, arises: is the language in which the thought of philosophers has been expressed is meaningless? Is it a complete failure? Surprising though it was, Wittgenstein stoked the suspicion. He introduces right in the next paragraph this suspicion: “Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical. Consequently, we cannot give any answer to questions of this kind, but can only point out that they are nonsensical.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness, Routledge, Revised edition 1974, p 2-23).
Kanhapada gave a hint of such a phase in his poetry that was “unsayable”. In the words of philosophers, this “unsayable” is bound to be “nonsensical” because “jetoi boli tetobi taal”. The more you speak, the trickier it would be for language. Be it trickiness of language or not, it cannot express any meaning in the final instance. In Wittgenstein’s opinion, language is the cloth over the thought-like body. The cloth is not designed in a manner so as to reveal the body it covers. Wittgenstein thinks that most philosophers have come up with “nonsensical” ideas in their bid to expose the body. Therefore, “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.”
Long prior to Wittgenstein, the Charyapada poet Kanhapada seriously realized the discrepancy between language and thought. Instead of creating “nonsense”, Kanhapada warned us to remain silent. Otherwise, there is a chance to fall victim to the honey trap of language and in the process, become a creator of nonsense. Although they realized the same matter, the philosopher condensed the darkness of not-saying through saying while the poet gave voice to “unsaid expression” via “Ghano jamini” (dark night).
It will continue…